It was in 2014, a counsellor from Chunauti — a field action project — found a 12-year-old mentally challenged girl with some money at Mankhurd shelter home. On probing, she revealed that a peon of a municipal school on the same premises had sexually assaulted her and gave her the money to coax her to remain silent. The NGO complained to the superintendent and a case was registered with the Turbhe Police. Four years on, the sessions court last month sentenced the 50-year-old accused to life imprisonment.
“But the immediate consequence of our complaint was that children were stopped from attending that school. We fought that decision. But the root problem remains. Security must be strengthened,” said Asha Bajpai, from Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), and project director of Chunauti, which works for children in shelter homes.
In the aftermath of the Uttar Pradesh and Bihar incidents, in which girls in shelter homes were sexually assaulted, the central Women and Child Development (WCD) Ministry ordered a social audit of shelter homes in all states. In Mumbai, a social audit has not been conducted for at least last three years. “I don’t remember when the last audit happened,” a senior WCD department official said.
In 2010, one home in Thane and in 2011, two homes in Panvel and Aurangabad were shut down after cases of sexual abuse emerged.
But Mumbai shelter homes not only witnessed threats of sexual abuse to both boys and girls, they were also reeling under the burden of huge staff crunch, lack of trained employees, poor education support and physical abuse of children.
Need for education and protection of ‘mentally deficient’ children
Following the death of five mentally challenged children due to malnourishment at a Thane home, in 2011 the Bombay High Court took suo motu cognizance and appointed a five-member Maharashtra State Co-ordination Committee for Child Protection to submit a report on condition of shelter homes for mentally deficient children (MDC).
In its report, TISS found that these homes were grounds for sexual abuse and neglect, and no regular inspections were being conducted there. “It is clear that the grant in aid provided to the NGOs does not reach the children for whom it is meant. The children are being forced to live like animals, not given proper food and medical aid, education, and often subjected to physical and sexual exploitation,” the report observed. Maharashtra has 23 MDC homes. Following the TISS survey, 35 children were rescued from Thane and Panvel homes, where they had been subjected to sexual abuse. One home in New Panvel — where 19 girls were sexually abused — did not provide undergarments, educational or vocational training to children. On top of that, the children used to be physically and sexually abused.
“Nothing much has changed since that report came out seven years ago,” said Asha Bajpai, chairperson of committee that submitted the report to Bombay High Court in 2011.
In Mankhurd’s Children Aid Society home, for instance, among the 265 inmates, over 80 per cent are adults. “The shelter home has an activity centre, but beyond that there is no structured education programme. These children turn 18, but have no employment or skill to live on their own. They continue to live there,” said Sarita Shankaran, rehabilitation and training head at Chunauti.
The report advised immediate segregation of mentally challenged adult inmates from children. Currently, there is a different section for males and females, but not for adults and minors.
In 2012, CCTV cameras were installed in the Mankhurd home, and a fence was built to protect children from outsiders. The inspection also found huge vacancies and lack of proper bathrooms for these children.
The children home gets a full government grant, but it violates Right to Education provisions by running only an activity centre for mentally challenged children. The vast premises has a primary school, run by an NGO that also runs the shelter home, and a secondary school, run by the BMC.
The distribution of MDC homes in Maharashtra also remains unequal, with 20 of 36 districts not having a single shelter home for mentally challenged chidren.
Vacancies, untrained staff, a continuing problem
While it has been mandated that once in every three months regular inspections should be carried out by district WCD officer, district probation officer, three probation officers and one child protection officer, there is no child protection officer in Mumbai city and Mumbai suburban regions. In addition, the post of district probation officer remains vacant in Mumbai city. In Mumbai suburban, two of three probation officer posts, and of one district WCD officer remain vacant.
“We have outsourced posts for protection officer, but we face an issue in getting qualified officers,” said Pravin Bhavsar, Mumbai city district WCD officer.
The city has 16 shelter homes — all private — of which 11 are fully aided by government and five remain unaided. At least four are exclusively meant for girls, four for both boys and girls aged less than six, and two shelter homes for boys and girls above six years.
Of the total sanctioned 499 posts for superintendent, counsellors and supporting staff in all these shelters, 57 are vacant.
The vacancy is highest in Salvation Army home in Sion, where out of 25 posts, only nine are filled. The shelter home has 69 children, all under care of just nine officials. “As per Juvenile Justice Act norms, for every 25 children, there must be at least six caretakers,” said Santosh Khoparde, who is a counsellor in Ulhasnagar home, but also looks after posts of superintendent, probationary officer and senior caretaker as those posts remain vacant.
The Children and Society home (Dongri) with 237 children, Maharashtra State Council in Umerkhadi with 133 and Shri Manav Seva Sangh with 123 children have the most number of children in Mumbai.
For 50 children, one probation officer is necessary, and one counsellor and one superintendent for every 100. In at least five shelter homes, where there are more than 100 children, there is only one superintendent, not two, in Mumbai city.
“Most common complaints we receive are of misbehaviour by staff towards children. There are few staff members as opposed to huge number of children,” said Pravin Gughe, chairperson of Maharashtra child rights commission.
“A shelter home is not just a place to sleep and eat. It should ensure overall development of a child, that sadly is not happening,” said Vijay Jadhav, secretary of state child rights commission.
From 2011 till 2016, State Commission For Protection of Child Rights — that guards rights of children in schools, shelter homes, and looks into sexual violence cases — remained defunct. The committee was appointed in 2017. “The backlog of cases is huge,” chairperson Gughe said.
In its counselling sessions, Chunauti project officials have realised corporal punishment is a reality in several homes, where staff training is poor. “In Mankhurd home, children who misbehave are shut for long hours in a room allotted for severe mentally challenged patients,” a counsellor said.
The TISS outreach programme is now working towards ‘positive discipline’ concept to encourage staffers to look for other ways to discipline children.
Lack of coordination
“From 2013 till 2016 I have written several letters to Bihar and UP’s chief secretary about children and minor girls being transported from there to Mumbai for sex trade. We have requested them so many times to coordinate,but got no response,” said A N Tripathi, former secretary of Maharashtra State Commission for Protection of Child Rights.
Inter-agency coordination remains an issue. The Childline has been batting for access to a telephone for children in shelter homes to allow children to lodge a complaint through 1098. But shelter homes remain wary and protest. “Access to children remains a concern. Even NGOs are not allowed to enter the in children shelter homes,” said Nishit Kumar, founder director of Centre of Social and Behaviour Change, an organisation that aids children who have faced abuse. He added, “It took a girl in UP home to run away and reach a police station to complain. How many can do that?”
Kumar added that training to caretakers is necessary. “How to touch a child, how to be sensitive enough. There is a lack of such training,” he said.
According to child rights commission secretary Jadhav, there is also need to strengthen coordination between WCD and police. “In several cases, police lack the sensitisation to handle cases of children in shelter homes,” he said.
Grants have risen, but performance poor
It took six years for Maharashtra government to increase the grant per child that TISS recommended in its 2011 report.
In 2017-18 Maharashtra WCD increased grants for children in shelter homes from Rs 900 to Rs 2,000 per child, and from Rs 1,100 to Rs 2,500 for a child in MDC homes.
According to Neelkanth Kale, from Konkan WCD division, of Rs 2,000 allotted per child per month, Rs 1,500 is meant exclusively for child, his food and clothes, while Rs 500 is for administrative expenses.
The grants have also risen in the 11 shelter homes funded by government in Mumbai. For instance, St Joseph Home and Nursery in Agripada noted a rise in government funds from Rs 6.6 lakh in 2015-16 to Rs 8.8 lakh in 2017-18. Similarly, The Hindu Woman’s Welfare Society saw rise of Rs 7.3 lakh in last three years.
In total, from Rs 82.03 lakh in 2015-16, WCD now pays Rs 1.09 crore funds to 11 shelter homes.
“But without staffers, what can a shelter home do for children,” questions Jadhav, state commission secretary.
In 2017, WCD de-recognised three shelter homes from Mumbai following third-party audits. The homes — Anjuman E Mufidil Yatama (Madanpura), Family Home Guild of Service (Naigaon) and DN Shirur Balakashram (Vile Parle) — were asked to stop taking more children and government funds stopped in 2017-18.